How many people plant an expression in the English language that half a century later becomes shorthand for the state of the world? I knew one.
As Obama's dilemmas on the economy and the Middle East are labeled "Catch-22s," I recall my friend Joseph Heller whose novel of that name has become shorthand for no-win situations of insane proportions.
Back then, Joe seemed an unlikely candidate for immortality--a happy-go-lucky guy who wrote promotion copy for McCalls while I worked for Redbook down an adjacent corridor. We would meet at the elevators and trade wisecracks.
Then, one day, he handed me a copy of "Catch-22," inscribed: "You could have read this in Redbook if you had acted with more alacrity. I hope you enjoy reading it now."
My alacrity was still lacking as I put Joe's book aside, but in October 1962 I took it on a trip to California and, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the black comedy of "Catch-22" was perfectly plausible at the edge of nuclear annihilation in L.A., where residents were hoarding toilet paper. Yossarian's struggle against universal madness seemed like pure realism.
Soon afterward, Joe handed me a novella he had written years earlier, telling me Hollywood was interested if he could get it published somewhere. I handed it back with my advice: "Burn it." Apparently his agent, Candida Donadio, had told him the same thing.
But Joe kept finding ingenious ways to nurse writer's block, conning me into low-paying assignments for a Metropolitan New York section of my magazine until Candida called and asked me to stop, saying I was enabling his procrastination on the second novel.
I cut him off and soon afterward received another inscribed copy, of "Something Happened," a dazzling work in which the wartime madness of "Catch-22" was applied to magazines resembling those we worked for.
I wish he were still around to see how the illogic and insanity he wrote about then are taking over the world now. He would have loved making fiction out of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Sarah Palin and Tea Party antics , but satirizing it all would have been a challenge.